A visit with great-Pops

Yesterday we visited my grandfather for lunch and a swim. Pops is about to turn 92. He is, truly, a force of nature. His apartment is full of models of both boats and rockets, books, family pictures, and two computers. He was – is! – an engineer and participated in some of the truly exciting projects of the 20th century, including Apollo XI. Pops is my last remaining grandparent and it is a great joy to me that my children know him and feel such affection towards him. He is “great-Pops” to them and is greeted with much enthusiasm and many full-body hugs.

Almost two years ago, on the eve of his 90th birthday celebration, I wrote a post called “A Great Man,” which was about and for Pops. It is all still true.

“From the first he loved Princeton – its lazy beauty, its half-grasped significance, the wild moonlight revel of the rushes, the handsome, prosperous big-game crowds …” – Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise

Tomorrow is Pops’ 90th birthday celebration. Wow! What an icon this man is. I know there will be Princeton talk, possibly some handing down of orange paraphernalia, and tears. From the first time I saw Princeton, Labor Day 1991, with Dad, I have loved it too. And the whole time, from day one until now, my love affair with Princeton has been intertwined with Pops’ own deep connection to the place. His experience and mine were radically different, and yet we both came away with intense commitment to and affection for the place. In my mind this is central to Princeton’s power: it is a place that can be both wildly various and fundamentally singular.

I’m struggling right now to write a birthday card to Pops, to put into words what he means to me. This man, blisteringly intellectual, stubborn and passionate about his hobbies and interests, more brave and curious at 90 than I am at 33. Who got onto a steamer ship in his mid teens to come to the Hill School as a boarding student from his home in China. Who to this day remains fluent in Mandarin, who uses email and makes ship models from tiny pieces of balsa wood. Who reads and travels voraciously, who is a consummate adventurer. His Christmas card last year was a photograph of himself hanging from a zip line, high in the trees, in Costa Rica. Who never misses a Princeton reunion. I am grateful that I was there in 2006 to walk with him in his first P-Rade as an official member of the Old Guard.

Notably, Pops’ old age has softened him – a man that I recall as being intimidating and slightly aloof has become one who chokes back tears at toasts and who drove long distances to meet my children as soon as they were born. I remember the spring of my freshman year I made him a frame with several photographs of campus, and a handwritten rendering of the quotation above. It was for his birthday, then, 1993 – it must have been his 75th, I realize how. I remember still the short personal note I wrote, and it remains true now: “It is an honor and a privilege to share the legacy of Princeton with you.”

9 thoughts on “A visit with great-Pops”

  1. My grandmother is nearing 90. She is, has been, and always will be the matriarch of my family. Her legacy will stand. Her words will be recalled time and time again. A few years ago my mother actually compiled a list of “Nannyisms” and read them aloud at her 80th birthday party. We hooted and howled as each saying came out. My grandmother beamed. The feeling in the room among all my many aunts, uncles and cousins was one I will always remember.

    I don’t usually tell my own stories in the comments. But I felt compelled to honor your tribute with my own.

    Cheers to your grandfather! And to you.

  2. Your grandfather sounds like an extraordinary man. It is amazing how the mind that keeps challenging itself and learning will retain such capacity. Your kids are fortunate to know him.

    I remember my great grandfather – an imposing man – who lived well into his nineties. And I consider myself fortunate to have known all four of my grandparents into my teens. Family anchors us in ways that are difficult to articulate, but certainly the history and the passing down of traditions is a significant part of that.

    I’m sure you do your “great pops” proud.

  3. What a wonderful tribute, Lindsey, and one that makes me very nostalgic for my own grandparents, three of whom I knew very well, but none of whom is still living. The photo of you, Pops, Grace, and Whit brought tears to my eyes – for all that it captures about the meaning of family and the weight of inter-generational relationships.

  4. How wonderful your relationship with your pops seems. I still have two living grandmothers. I feel so fortunate to still have them in my life and in my kids’ lives. The stories alone are just amazing.
    Beautiful tribute.

  5. Here’s to ancestors—I only had one grandparent, long gone now, and her degree was strictly school-of-life, but she spoke seven languages, was widely read and had a truly open, curious and nimble mind (much like your Pops, but a little more Isaac Basheva Singer than F. Scott Fitzgerald). How great that all these influences can mix, be honored and celebrated across the veils of time and space… falling, as James Joyce might say, on all the living and the dead.

  6. one day i’ll have to tell you about the chapter in my life when i was a personal historian, and how it all started with books i wrote about my father-in-law then my dad. now i only mention that much so you’ll understand the context when i tell you what a touching post this is from start to finish and ask if you’ve ever put a tape recorder in front of him? if you need tips, let me know. one thing i guarantee: your life and his will be enriched because of it. but then if you’ve already done it, you already know that. so glad your children know great-pops. a man who’s a real treasure. that’s obvious.

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